William Shakespeare Plays and Poems (Chronology and Periods)


What are the poems and plays of William Shakespeare? Detailed information and analysis of William Shakespeare plays and poems.


The date of composition of Shakespeare’s plays often cannot be fixed very precisely, but in some instances we have a definite date for a performance. The following chronology, from Edmund K. Chambers’ William Shakespeare (1930), is generally accepted.

  • 1590-1591 Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3
  • 1591-1592 Henry VI, Part 1
  • 1592-1593 Richard III; Comedy of Errors
  • 1593-1594 Titus Andronicus; Taming of the Shrew
  • 1594-1595 Two Gentlemen of Verona; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Romeo and Juliet
  • 1595-1596 Richard II; Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • 1596-1597 King John; Merchant of Venice
  • 1597-1598 Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
  • 1598-1599 Much Ado About Nothing; Henry V
  • 1599-1600 Julius Caesar; As You Like It; Twelfth Night
  • 1600-1601 Hamlet; Merry Wives of Windsor
  • 1601-1602 Troilus and Cressida
  • 1602-1603 All’s Well That Ends Well
  • 1604-1605 Measure for MeasureOthello
  • 1605-1606 King Lear; Macbeth
  • 1606-1607 Antony and Cleopatra
  • 1607-1608 Coriolanus; Timon of Athens
  • 1608-1609 Pericles
  • 1609-1610 Cymbeline
  • 1610-1611 Winter’s Tale
  • 1611-1612 Tempest
  • 1612-1613 Henry VIII; Two Noble Kinsmen

Shakespeare’s first editors, his colleagues Heminge and Condell, divided his plays into comedies, histories, and tragedies, but they did not arrange them in order of composition. The first play in their Folio is The Tempest, a late play, and the last is Cymbeline, also a late play.

William Shakespeare

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Chronology and Periods.

The first serious attempt to ascertain the order in which the plays were written was made by Edmond (or Edmund) Malone in 1778. The effort was carried on in the 19th century by Frederick J. Furnivall, Frederick G. Fleay, and other members of the New Shakspere Society (1873-1894), which Furnivall founded. A generally accepted chronology of the 20th century is that of Edmund K. Chambers, shown in the accompanying table.

It is now conventional, though artificial, to divide Shakespeare’s career into three periods— the Early Period, up until his company acquired the Globe Theatre in 1599; the Middle Period, from that time until they acquired the Blackfriars in 1608; and the Final Period.


Early Period.

When he began, Shakespeare was an experimenter. He was entering a field in which John Lyly had created witty, sophisticated court comedies; Christopher Marlowe had charged his heroic melodramas with the mighty line of poetry that made forever obsolete the “Jigging veins of rhyming mother wits” (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine); and Thomas Kyd had stunned the stage with his revenge play The Spanish Tragedy. George Peele and Robert Greene had written romantic plays of a mixed genre.

Shakespeare wrote four plays about the Wars of the Roses, making a kind of epic series out of King Henry the Sixth, Parts 1, 2, and 3, and King Richard the Third. The characterization is not profound, and the verse is often stiff and rhetorical, but these plays were to lead to the great accomplishments of King Richard the Second, King Henry the Fourth, and King Henry the Fifth. In these mature history plays Shakespeare blends history, patriotic feeling, great character portrayal, and even comedy in the most masterly way.

In tragedy, Shakespeare began with a Sen-ecan horror thriller, Titus Andronicus, and wisely turned away from that to the romantic tragedy of Romeo ana Juliet, a play of timeless beauty but a tragedy of fate rather than of character. In comedy, he began with a close imitation of Latin comedy, but he gradually introduced more and more of the romantic love element, which makes his great comedies at the end of this period-Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night—supreme of their kind.

Middle Period.

An experiment with Roman material in Julius Caesar led to the great tragedies Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. In these plays both character and fate have an influence on the outcome. Shakespeare’s finest characterizations and his most profound vision of the nature of evil and the struggles of the human soul are to be seen here. Concurrently he wrote a group of “problem comedies,” which are not so sunny as the great ones but search for meaning in troublesome moral dilemmas. Toward the end of this period he returned to classical subjects in Antony and Cleopatra, Corio-lanus, and Timon of Athens.

Final Period.

What was left for Shakespeare to exploit was the area of romance, very popular in his time both in fiction and in drama. He had used r

omantic elements in such earlier plays as Two Gentlemen of Verona, As You Like It, and The Merchant of Venice but had subordinated them to the requirements of comedy. Now—in Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; The Winter’s Tale; and The Tempest—he chose plots with more wonder than probability in them and emphasized spectacle, song, and sensational effects. At the same time he created a marvelous series of innocent and persecuted heroines. Finally, perhaps after his retirement to Stratford about 1612, Shakespeare collaborated with his younger colleague John Fletcher on the history play King Henry the Eighth and on The Two Noble Kinsmen, based on the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.


A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare) - Short Summary

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)

Quartos and Folios.

That Shakespeare was an artist is obvious. The quality of the plays cannot be the result of accident. But this does not mean that he was writing for readers. He was writing for the stage. He and his company profited mainly from the production, not the publication, of his plays, and there is no evidence that he prepared any of them for the press. The question, then, of how his plays got from his own manuscript to our modern texts is 01 importance and interest.

Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were published separately as quarto pamphlets. These were reprinted in the folio collection of 1623, and 18 unpublished plays were added. The editors of the folio, Shakespeare’s associates Heminge and Condell, condemned the earlier quartos as “divers stolen and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters.” In the folio, it was claimed, these plays were given “cured and perfect of their limbs” and the unpublished plays “absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.” For over two centuries these words were taken literally, but modern research has shown that usually the folio editors reprinted an earlier quarto when there was one. Often they used a recent quarto, with its accumulated misprints, rather than the earliest one. But they did often introduce changes, apparently from a playhouse manuscript. Furthermore, some of the quartos show signs of having been set up from Shakespeare’s own manuscript or a faithful copy of it.

Prejudice against the quartos is well justified, however, in the case of six, now always called the “bad quartos.” They are the Romeo and Juliet of 1597, the King Henry the Fifth of 1600, the Merry Wives of 1602, the Hamlet of 1603, and the 1594-1595 editions of Parts 1 and 2 of King Henry the Sixth. These badly garbled texts certainly never came from the prompt copy or the author’s manuscript. They were either taken down in faulty shorthand by an agent in the audience or, more probably, reconstructed from memory by an actor or other employee of the company. Sometimes the version on which the reconstruction was based may have been a shortened form used on tour in the provinces. And there is always the possibility that different texts of a play originated before and after revision by the author or someone else.

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Source : pixabay.com)


No author’s manuscript of a play in the folio has survived, but a strong case has been made for Shakespeare’s hand as one of those in a play of composite authorship called Sir Thomas More. Most scholars believe that 147 lines on three pages of manuscript in the British Museum are in Shakespeare’s own handwriting. If so, some confirmation has been found for the statement of the folio editors concerning their author’s facility: “His mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” Ben Jonson’s retort to this remark is characteristic and famous: “I remember, the Players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare, that in his writing, (whatsoever he penn’d) hee never blotted out line. My answer hath beene, would he had blotted a thousand. Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, wherein he most faulted. And to justifie mine owne candor, (for I lov’d the man, and doe honour his memory (on this side Idolatry) as much as any.) Hee was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature: had an excellent Phantsie; brave notions, and gentle expressions: wherein hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d: Sufflaminandus erat; as Augustus said of Haterius. His wit was in his owne power; would the rule of it had beene so too. . .

It is not surprising that no manuscripts of Shakespeare plays in the folio have survived. Twentieth century interest in original manuscripts should not be assumed to have existed in the 16th century. The author’s manuscript, moreover, was of practical value as a working text of the play, and it would have been used rather than preserved. Upon completion of a play, the company had first to send it to the official licenser, who was the Master of the Revels. He read it and affixed his signature to the manuscript (for which he got a fee) if the play seemed to him to be free from offense. The main interest of this censorship was political. Sir Thomas More was not produced, for example, because the master found some of its speeches dangerous and would allow the play to appear only if considerable changes were made. Later, in King James’ reign, there was a law against oaths, and the licenser was supposed to see that no profane matter crept in.

If the play met with his approval, the licenser signed a warrant on the last page, pocketed his fee, and returned the manuscript to the players. They then either had a transcript made or used the original for a director’s copy. Notes of stage directions were made, sometimes with the names of the actors concerned. It is from such a note, carried over into print, that we know Will Kemp played Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing. A “plot” or synopsis of scenes, with entrances noted, was drawn up to hang in the tiring-room, and the parts for the individual actors to memorize were copied out from the manuscript of the play.

Problems of direction in Elizabethan times— the difficulties an author had to overcome before his play was produced as he wished—can best be inferred from Hamlet’s advice to the players. There Shakespeare shows a sensitiveness to diction (“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue”), a dislike of extravagant overacting (“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious, periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters”), a love of “the modesty of nature,” and an annoyance at interpolated gags by a comedian (“That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it”).

The Elizabethan theater did not have the system of long runs of plays familiar to us. The company kept several plays in repertory during a season, and when the manuscript was no longer needed as a prompt copy, it would be put away until some occasion for revival—a tour in the provinces or an opportunity to play at court-came about. If for any reason the players decided to publish a play, the published version might incorporate changes and notes previously made by players, as well as the printer’s errors or emendations.

The Winter's Tale Summary - William Shakespeare

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Like all other dramatists, drew not only upon life but upon books for his material. In several instances—notably King John, The Taming of the Shrew, King Henry the Fourth, King Lear, and Hamlet—he rewrote old plays. For his English historical plays he turned for material to Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. He found there plenty of historical detail, brief and formal characterization, and the prejudices about English history of the 15th century that favored the Tudor interest. He used his material with freedom, taking motives out of their context, altering the ages of characters—doing anything, in fact, that would increase the dramatic effectiveness of his play if it did not too seriously contradict general knowledge. History plays were popular in the decade following 1588 because of the renaissance of English patriotism after the Armada, and there are many indications that the Elizabethans considered the plays “true history,” as educational as the chronicles and much more entertaining. In the history play, Shakespeare found opportunities for the study of character that served as preliminary exercises for his greatest achievements. Richard II, for instance, is a character who foreshadows Hamlet in part, and Richard III prefigures Iago.

A much richer book from the point of view of character portrayal provided him with »the material for his Roman tragedies. This is Sir Thomas North’s translation (1579) of Plutarch’s Lives. Here Shakespeare got not only complex biographical analyses of the heroes of antiquity but also much that was useful for style. He versifies whole pages of North’s prose, the most remarkable example of which is Enobarbus’ description of Cleopatra’s barge (Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 2). But there is still very great freedom in selection and utilization of material, and much that he uses is transformed by passing through the romantic imagination of the Englishman. Enobarbus is almost entirely Shakespeare’s invention, and the citizens in Julius Caesar he saw not in a book but on the streets of London.

Twice Shakespeare dramatized English novels: As You Like It from Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde and The Winter’s Tale from the Pandosto of Robert Greene, who years before had called Shakespeare an “upstart crow.” Many of his plays depend, directly or indirectly, on Italian tales of love, adventure, and violence. Modern criticism has questioned whether there is always a unity between these adopted plots and the characters who enact them. If a disunity is found, it is only another evidence of the profound way in which character absorbed the playwright’s mind, sometimes to the neglect of other matters.


Other great books, such as the English Bible and the Essays of Montaigne, have been shown to have strongly affected Shakespeare’s thought and style. However “unlearned’ he was supposed to have been, books played a large part in his education.

Question of Authorship.

The question of the authorship of the plays now or formerly published under Shakespeare’s name has turned in several directions and has had many ramifications. The first of these is the apocrypha—plays ascribed to Shakespeare in his lifetime or later but not now included in the canon (the authentic works). The second is the question of whether William Shakespeare of Stratford was actually the author of the plays of the canon or whether his name was merely put to plays that are the work of another man. The third is the question of whether the plays in the canon are collaborations, plays by other men slightly revised by Shakespeare, or plays drafted by Shakespeare and finished by other writers.

The canon of Shakespeare’s dramatic works consists of the 36 plays published in the First Folio of 1623 plus two others, Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and part of a third, Sir Thomas More. Four plays that were fraudulently attributed to him in his lifetime—Sir John Ola-castle, The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and The Troublesome Reign of King John—iorm part of the apocrypha. The rest of it consists of plays included in the second issue of the Third Folio in 1664, which had already been printed in quarto with the initials W. S. or other hint of Shakespearean authorship.

Many attempts—unconvincing to the great majority of Shakespearean scholars—have been made to show that William Shakespeare is a pseudonym for the real author of the plays in the canon, who was not the actor from Stratford. About 60 names have been proposed. The four favorites are Francis Bacon; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby; and Christopher Marlowe. Whether Shakespeare collaborated with others is a more respectable scholarly question. He is now thought to have done so in King Henry the Eighth, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles, as well as in part of Sir Thomas More.

William Shakespeare Poems:

Shakespeare was as much a poet as a playwright. Fortunately, the existence of a poetic drama that, after Marlowe, was capable of the greatest expression poetically and dramatically made it unnecessary for Shakespeare to continue the career as a nondramatic poet that he had begun with Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The exception to this is his series of sonnets published in 1609.

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was entered for publication on April 18, 1593, by the printer Richard Field, a fellow townsman three years his senior, who had come up to London in 1579. The poem was dedicated to the young Earl of Southampton, a favorite patron of writers of amatory verse, and some sort of monetary acknowledgment was probably given by the nobleman, although the old legend that once he gave the poet £. 1,000 is incredible. The dedication refers to Venus and Adonis as “the first heir of my invention” (that is, his first published work), and Shakespeare promises “some graver labor” if this one is found acceptable. The promise was kept a year later by the dedication of The Rape of Lucrece, in which the poet says he has warrant of the Earl’s disposition that makes this second offering assured of acceptance. “What I have- done is yours,” he says, “what I have to do is yours, being part in all I have, devoted yours”—lines that seem to suggest an intimacy greater than that reflected in the first dedication.

As You Like It Summary - William Shakespeare

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Sonnets and Lyrics.

In 1599 a small anthology called The Passionate Pilgrim was issued by the publisher William Jaggard with the name of Shakespeare on the title page. Among the 20 poems are two sonnets by him and three excerpts from Love’s Labour’s Lost, but some of the other poems are known to be by other men and possibly all of them are. When the book reached a third edition in 1612, several selections from Thomas Heywood’s Troia Britanica were added, and Heywood protested at the piracy, with the remark that Shakespeare was also vexed. This led to the issuance of a new title page without an author’s name. In 1601 a genuine poem by Shakespeare, now called The Phoenix and the Turtle, appeared in Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, a collection of poems celebrating the love of Sir John Salusbury and his wife. Shakespeare’s poem is a “metaphysical” one, in quatrains, and it has met with both strong condemnation and strong praise. Appended to the edition of the sonnets in 1609 was a poem called The Lover’s Complaint. Modern critics doubt, on internal evidence, that it is by Shakespeare.

Not these miscellanea but the songs and other lyrical passages in the plays and the sonnets give Shakespeare the very highest rank as a lyric poet. When he wrote lyrics for music, his style became clear and limpid, however tortured and complex the play might be. The songs are commonly filled with pleasant details of nature, very English, but they never become prosy or pedestrian. They show the gaiety of the contemporary ballet or dancing song, the gravity of the motet, and the occasional epigrammatic quality of the madrigal. All of these part-songs had reached the height of their development in the poet’s lifetime, and the modern song with accompaniment, the “air,” was just coming in. Two of Shakespeare’s songs can still be sung to contemporary musical settings. They are “It was a lover and his lass” (from As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 3), set by Thomas Morley in his First Book of Airs (1600), and “O mistress mine” (from Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 3), set by Morley in his Consort Lessons (1599) and by William Byrd with elaborate variations for the virginals. The songs at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, beginning “When daisies pied and violets blue” and “When icicles hang by the wall,” have been called by John Masefield the loveliest thing ever said about England. But most important of all, the songs always have a dramatic purpose and a dramatic effectiveness. The poet never releases his lyricism wantonly or idly.


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